“I’m always finding a story within things,” says Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. “Even when it’s just looking at a painting or something, I’m going, ‘What’s happening here? And what happens after this?’ I think with most Flaming Lips records, there was probably a secret story that I was basing most of what was gonna happen in the songs on, though I’m not sure I would remember it now.”
There’s definitely a story at the center of King’s Mouth: Music and Songs, The Flaming Lips’ fifteenth studio album—though as is often the case with Coyne and his colleagues’ work, the details and meanings are a little on the oblique side. A fractured fairy tale involving the birth, reign, and death of a giant king, King’s Mouth dreamily ponders the miracles of existence and the cyclical aspects of nature via twelve interconnected songs, many of which feature narration from none other than Mick Jones of British punk legends The Clash and 1980s dance-punk pioneers Big Audio Dynamite.
The story and songs of King’s Mouth were inspired by Coyne’s immersive art installation of the same name, which has been showcased at various art museums and galleries across the U.S. since 2015. The installation centers around a giant, hand-crafted metallic head that treats visitors (who enter the head via a gaping mouth) to ten minutes of ambient, abstract music and a psychedelic lightshow. King’s Mouth: Music and Songs—which will be released on April 13 in a limited-edition colored vinyl pressing for Record Store Day, with a digital release following in July—is meant as a sonic companion to the installation, though it also holds up quite nicely on its own.
We spoke with Coyne about King’s Mouth (both the installation and the album), the “power of making a decision,” and how Don Letts got the famously reclusive Mick Jones to appear on the record.
Your publicist tells me that you’re in an especially good mood today.
[Laughs.] Well, always, yeah! I think I am lucky, in that most of the people I talk to, especially about Flaming Lips music, they’re my friends already—I just don’t know them that well. You wouldn’t be talking to me right now if you didn’t like what we’re doing, and I think I get an energy out of that, going back and forth.
Along those lines, I have to say that I absolutely love the record.
Well, thank you. I absolutely love it, too; I forget how simple and how emotional it is. It’s sad, and it’s touching, and all these things. While you’re making it, you don’t really ever get to sit there and listen and go, “Well, what is this?” Now that it’s done, though, I’m listening to it and thinking, “Wow, we made something really great!” It’s got a real emotional arc to it, and that’s the stuff that’s just impossible to do if you’re too aware of it; it only works when you do it kind of like the way this one happened with us. It was like, “We’re making songs, and we’ll see how it goes.” And then, at the end of it, you’re like, “These are actually powerful little songs!”
And they really do seem to form a cohesive whole.
Well, I remember even on the very first album we made, the idea that the songs would connect with each other was already there. But I think we’ve gotten more obsessed with that over time, more in love with thinking about how this song can merge into that song. I don’t think very many people are even really listening to music like that now, but I know that we do. And we’re not really making it to be the most popular band in the world; we’re making it because it’s something that we love.
“We’re not really making it to be the most popular band in the world; we’re making it because it’s something that we love.”
The idea for the album came well after the idea for the art installation, correct?
Exactly. In the beginning, I don’t think there was any inkling that it would be anything more than this sort of freak-out art installation. And there was quite a bit of effort put into the music—it’s kind of an abstract, wordless piece that plays inside the King’s Mouth. When people would go into it, there would always be a little bit of a hint of, “This is going to be a Flaming Lips record, right?” And I was like, “No, I don’t think so. It just is what it is, you know?”
But seeing people’s emotional reactions to it—that, I think, spurred us on the most. In the beginning, we would have been satisfied with it being a kind of freak-out, where people would come out of it going, “Woah, that’s fuckin’ weird, man” [laughs]. But seeing people really have an emotional change from the experience, that really took us by surprise. The program in the King’s Mouth is not quite ten minutes long, but if you sit in there and catch the whole program from beginning to end, there’s something meditative about it. People would be coming out and telling us stories about their grandmother, or how it made them think of these sad moments in their lives that they were able to turn into optimistic things. It was like, “Wow, this is better than we thought!” And then, suddenly, it seemed like, “It should be an album!” And it started to make sense to us, like, “It could be a story! It could have these characters…”
In other words, it was a natural, if unplanned, progression from art to album?
Yeah—but I have to say, that’s the only way you can do it. You have to kind of believe, “The thing that we’re doing right now, this is the way it’s going to be!” And, then, of course, a year later, you change your mind and it becomes something else. But you have to really be a true believer in the moment. And that’s how I think it becomes something. If you’re second-guessing it the whole time, I don’t think it will ever amount to anything. Going down the wrong path is better than not going down a path at all—at least you’re going in some direction. Thinking about things just kind of confuses you; there’s a thousand things you could do, and you don’t really know what to do. In the beginning, we just thought, “Hey, it’s this installation. We know what it’s going to be!” But then it started to seem like it could be more.
How did Mick Jones become involved with it?
I personally have only met him once, several years ago, when we were playing after Roxy Music at [Bestival in 2010]. He was there to see Roxy Music, so we met him just briefly. We were like, “Oh my god, it’s Mick Jones!” [laughs]. But there’s a young British singer-songwriter that we know named Jorja [Smith], and she lives literally right next door to Don Letts, who was in Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones. And Don Letts is a Flaming Lips fan; he would come to our shows, and he and Jorja would talk about Mick, and in the back of my mind I thought, “Well, maybe they can get Mick to do this narration.” When I asked Don about it, he made it clear to me that “Mick doesn’t do anything. He’s a recluse!” But at the same time, he said, “Wayne, I think I can get Mick to do it for you…”
We had only a few of the songs done at the time, and I was making the narration based on the titles of some of the paintings I’d done. I sort of cobbled together this long email to Don that was like, “Well, if Mick is going to do it, this is what he would do it from.” And I didn’t really think that it was going to happen or wasn’t going to happen. It was like, “Well, if Don can persuade Mick to do this, then wonderful; if not, then we can go to the next thing.”
On to plan B?
Yeah, but we didn’t have anybody else on the list! The list was, “Can we get Mick Jones to do it?” [laughs]. So we sort of set to work making songs and putting the album together. And about a month and a half later, all the text came back with Mick doing the narration. We never even talked about it. I feel like one day I’ll meet Mick, and he’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I was on your record.”
I was excited to learn that Mick was doing the narration for the record, and not just because I’m a huge Clash fan. He’s one of those people whose interviews I love to listen to; he has a way of speaking that I find very charming and comforting.
“Going down the wrong path is better than not going down a path at all—at least you’re going in some direction.”
See, you’re exactly right! And it’s strange that we would both even notice that, because it’s not like he’s a guy who’s known for being a great interview. But when he’s doing interviews, there really is something gentle and giving and smart and funny and humble and eccentric and irreverent that comes through… It’s still hard for me to believe that he’s on our record.
Once I thought that perhaps Don could persuade him to do it, I listened to quite a few interviews that Mick had done. I had already sent him the text, but I was doing more research, like, “How would he do on this?” There was an interview where he talks about his mother, and he kind of uses this longing, sad, regretful inflection when he says “mother”…and in King’s Mouth, in the intro, there’s a part about the King’s mother dying, and when the text came back that he had recorded, the way he says “mother” in the intro is exactly the same way he’d said it in the interview. And it completely blew me away, because in my mind I was hearing it that way!
Between his narration and the fairy tale–like flow of the story, King’s Mouth reminds me a lot of Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake by Small Faces. Was that an influence on you at all?
I actually don’t know that one that well. Our narration ideas would have come more from something like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, with Boris Karloff, or The Point! with Harry Nilsson. And then there are those Beatles Christmas fan club records; I remember sitting and listening to them a few years ago with Dennis [Coyne, Wayne’s nephew and Flaming Lips engineer], thinking, “We should do something like that!” It’s not singing; it’s people telling these funny, eccentric little stories.
I think A Clockwork Orange was certainly an influence, too. And even though we, The Flaming Lips, are about the most Midwestern group you could ever be, we don’t have an American person doing the narration—it’s an eccentric British guy. Which, for us, is perfect. It makes us more American, I think, to be hypnotized by a British accent. FL